by Olive Hemmings  |  2 May 2022  |

Much of what we say we know about Biblical interpretation is derived from what the Bible says about itself. While the Bible has the right to self-identify itself as an inspired book, the problem is that several of the oft-used passages are taken out of context, and in some cases wholly misinterpreted.

What follows are four commonly misused or decontextualized texts about the biblical interpretation.

John 5:39

“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (King James Version)

If one reads it directly from the Greek, one may find no fault with this translation. However it is not the only possible translation of the text. When there is more than one possible translation based purely upon the grammar and the word meaning, the context makes the decision, not the doctrinal assumption of the interpreter. The New King James Version uses a slightly different translation than the usual command we got from the KJV: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.”

The word translated “search” as a command in the KJV may also be translated as an indicative: “you are searching”—which means a statement of reality. Because it is in the present tense, it could also have a sense of continuation, in which case it would say, “Continue to search the scriptures….” (italics mine).

A word that many translations have overlooked is the word translated “and”— the Greek word kai can be translated “but,” or “even,” or “also.” Which is it?

We understand this passage best if we place it in the context from which it emerges. John’s Gospel reflects a debate within the synagogue between those who sought to hold on to certain traditions, and those who sought reform. This latter group wanted to open up the synagogue to diversity through reinterpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant, i.e., God’s covenant is not only a covenant with Jewish males, but with the whole world.

The reform movement became the church, which was essentially a movement for reform that the more traditional synagogue saw as a threat to its identity and its survival with the Roman Empire. This disagreement led to the eventual separation between church and synagogue. In the immediate context of this text, the traditional group plotted to kill Jesus because he not only breaks the Sabbath, but goes so far as to assert that he is the Messianic agent of God.

So this statement can be seen as a retort. Read in its context, it says, “You continue searching the scriptures because you assume you have eternal life in them, but these are the very passages that testify about me.” The tense indicates their usual practice: “You habitually search the scriptures….” The term we translate “you think you have” most accurately reads “you assume you have.”

John is reminding us that one enters into life only through the love which Christ manifests.

Isaiah 28:10,13

For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.”

This text is often used out of context as an instruction in how to study the Bible—that is, by comparing one text to another. But if one reads the entire chapter, it becomes evident that it is not describing a hermeneutical method, but the priests’ disrespect for Isaiah’s persistent preaching against injustice.

Isaiah in this chapter identifies “the priests and prophets who…are confused with wine and stagger with strong drink,” who “err in vision” and “stumble in giving judgement.” He says that the table of these religious operatives are “covered with filthy vomit; no place is clean.” In other words, the religious system itself is totally corrupt, and the priests and scholars are the enablers of injustice.

This is the persistent theme of Isaiah. From chapter one, Isaiah is decrying all cultic sacrifices, observances and rigmaroles in the face of flagrant injustice, and calling for true revival and reformation (Isaiah 1:10-20).

“…precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little,” repeated in verses 10 and 13, is the complaint of the corrupt religious leaders, not a word from God. In their drunken stupor (verse 9), they complain that Isaiah is teaching them as though they are children.

In the original Hebrew, the repeated phraseology “precept upon precept,” “line upon line,” “here a little, there a little” is idiomatic, and the English translation does not capture the real meaning. The drunken leaders are mocking the prophet’s words, saying that he repeats himself (“line upon line, precept upon precept”) and speaks to them as though they are children (“here a little, there a little”).

The idiom might best be translated: “blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada, same old same old.”[1]

2 Peter 1:19-21

First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

The prophecy about which the passage speaks is the early church’s expectation of the end of the world, which coincides with an era of Jewish apocalyptic expectation. These apocalyptic writings arise out of the church’s political oppression. The prophecies offer a message of hope that God will in the end prevail—similar to the lessons we Adventists find in Daniel and Revelation.

Interestingly, when this epistle was written the Apocalypse of John—the book we call Revelation—was already in circulation. This may account for the statement in verse 19: “so we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.”

Yet the reality is that the end did not come as they expected it. The author is addressing a church community that stood on the brink of division and dissolution. Many were discouraged with the delay of the expected end of the world (chapters 2-3). These cynical members of the church justified their doubts with false teachings about the end (2 Peter 3:3-4).

I don’t think it is helpful to use this text to shut down diverse views regarding the end of the world. Instead, the thrust of the text is a call to the community to continue to study and remain hopeful in the promise of Messiah’s coming.

It is in community that scriptures take on their full relevance and meaning, because scriptures emerge from the life of community. No one person, no one interest group or denominational leader, should dominate, influence or bully everyone else into compliance to their “private” interpretation. This is, in fact, a dangerous threat to a community of faith.

We all read the Bible from where we stand, regardless of what method of interpretation we apply. If we listen to each other, we can see what one sees and the other overlooks.

For example, a person from a Native American community may not interpret the Exodus as liberation, because their land and people were ravished and captured by invading forces.

A person raised to consciously or unconsciously embrace social hegemony might only see verse 3 in 1 Corinthians 11 (“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”) and read the rest in light of it. But a woman on the underside, acutely aware of the ill effects of being socially dominated, will focus on verses 11-12 (“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman… But everything comes from God.”) and read the rest in light of that. This person may also observe that verse 7 (“[Man] is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man”) appears contrary to the Genesis account of creation,[2] and she may sensitize the community to read and interpret the passage more rigorously and conscientiously.

The point is this: it is only as we read scriptures together from where we stand in our varying circumstances, and listen to each other, that we can nurture a community of liberation and mutual respect. Only then shall the “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

1 Corinthians 2:14,16

“Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”

Biblical passages do not fall as a nugget from the sky to be used as one wishes. Once again, the context of this passage in the early church gives us a broader meaning.

Paul’s call to the early church was away from the temporality of human life, which only serves to divide, as was demonstrated in the schismatic Corinthian church. According to Paul, these would include rituals, ethnic and biological identities (Galatians 3:28), doctrines that pose as “irrefutable knowledge” (1 Corinthians 3; 8:1-3), and the tendency to put others and their abilities down in order to feel important (1 Corinthians 12). These sorts of things are “unspiritual” and temporary.

In 1 Corinthians Paul says the obsession with such temporal things is childish—what in Galatians he calls “fleshly.” This passage is Paul’s call away from fleshly temporalities to that which is everlasting: love (1 Corinthians 13).

That experience can only come when one is “in Christ,” (Gal 3:28) which is the spiritual path that makes us all one regardless of the diverse identities and ideas (1 Corinthians 3). To focus on the temporal identities is the path of the flesh that prevents us from discerning what really matters: love.

If they are on the path of genuine Christlike love, believers “are subject to no one else’s scrutiny” (1 Cor. 2:15). Paul says this another way in Romans 13:8-10: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another….”

Because Paul understood the difference between the temporal and the eternal, he was able to say that one does not have to be circumcised, or follow a particular diet, or observe particular days in order to access the promise of God’s salvation (Gal 3-4; 1 Cor. 10:23-33; Rom 14). Because Paul was spiritual he could discern that male domination (today sometimes called male headship) is the way of the flesh—that man and woman are interdependent under the headship of God.

This discernment happens to an individual or a community which places the ego under Christ’s subjection, and focuses on that which is spiritual and eternal.

What this passage is not, however, is a blank check to interpret any passage as you want to because you claim to be the one who is most spiritual.

  1., retrieved September 13, 2021
  2. The is not Paul’s own interpretation of Genesis 1. Rather, he employs the argument in verses 3-10 as a rhetorical device, often used in Greek philosophical schools, to lay bare the argument he wants to oppose before he throws it out (verses 11-12).

Olive J. Hemmings is a professor of religion and ethics at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. 

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